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Another spin, another new idea

Sometimes progress comes through centrifugal force.

The concept works something like this: someone has an idea. The idea gets passed to you. You pass it on to someone else. Eventually, it comes back to you. Same idea. Nothing much has changed. You dutifully pass it on. Again. And again.

For what seems like an eternity, the idea doesn't really go anywhere, but it seems to come around more often, with greater speed. Eventually, after going around in circles fast enough, the idea generates enough centrifugal force to finally break out of the rut and go someplace.

We talk a lot about how our industry changes. But it's not very often that an idea or an event comes along that immediately revolutionizes the way trucks and trailers are designed, manufactured, marketed, or used. New ideas come along frequently, but even the good ones usually spin around and go nowhere before eventually taking off.

Hybrids are one of those ideas. In 2000, virtually every Japanese truck manufacturer at the Tokyo Motor Show featured diesel/electric powertrains. “Interesting concept,” we thought at the time. “and with diesel costing more than $1 a gallon, maybe customers would be interested in lowering their fuel costs.”

In the years since then, fuel prices have spun out of control, yet the hybrid truck concept really did not seem to go anywhere. At least until recently.

In February, UPS announced that it was doing more than just tossing the idea around. The carrier is buying 50 hybrid delivery trucks to go along with the 4,100 low-emission vehicles it will purchase in 2006.

By acquiring the 50 hybrid delivery trucks, UPS expects to reduce fuel consumption by 44,000 gallons over the course of a year. In addition, the 4,100 low emission vehicles will cut fuel consumption by 15% compared with the vehicles that will be retired. The result: a savings of approximately 1.5 million gallons of fuel a year.

The decision to buy the hybrid trucks follows more than eight years of research. UPS has operated such vehicles since 1998, and has had hybrid automobiles in regular service since 2001. After considering the idea for almost a decade, the guys at UPS probably thought on more than one occasion that they were experiencing a lot of motion and very little progress.

Yet more than 1,500 alternative-fueled vehicles are now in the UPS fleet, including trucks powered by natural gas, propane, electricity, and hydrogen. The carrier also is at work with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a hydraulic hybrid drivetrain.

Disc brakes for trailers is another of those ideas that has been batted around for years. In common use in Europe, they have yet to make inroads into the North American market. But NHTSA's recent rulemaking — which calls for significant reduction in allowable stopping distances — may be accelerating the idea of disc brakes on trailers to the point that it approaches “centrifugal speed.” In December, the agency announced plans to snug up truck brake regulations by 20%-30%. Such a reduction should require at least some moderate changes in truck and trailer braking systems. We will have a report on this topic in next month's issue of Trailer/Body Builders.

As things spin around, it's good to get outside the conventional orbit. That's why we try to bring you updates from outside the North American market. This month we report on the European Road Transport Show held recently in Amsterdam. More than 120,000 visitors toured the exhibition, which this time was particularly strong on truck body innovations.

If you have been around the industry for any length of time, you will notice some of these new products employ a slightly new twist to solve an age-old problem. How many of these ideas have potential in the North American market? Will the new twists be sufficient to vault these truck body and trailer designs into the mainstream? Or when the show returns to Amsterdam in 2007, will these ideas no longer turn heads?

Meanwhile, back at your place: Is there an idea at your company that needs just a little push in order to get it to go places? Have conditions changed just enough that the old “we tried that before” line no longer applies? Maybe it's worth thinking about.

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